Song Of The Week: “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes

kim carnes bette-davies-eyes smallJust as there’s a fine line between genius and madness, there’s not always much wiggle room between persistence and repeatedly banging your head against a wall. If you’re lucky, though, you end up with fame, fortune, and a platinum-selling, double Grammy-winning, #1 hit song — rather than anonymity and a severe concussion.

In 1966, Kim Carnes started singing with The New Christy Minstrels—a squeaky clean folk-pop choir of sorts—alongside fellow member and future duet partner, Kenny Rogers. When the group disbanded in 1971, she spent a few years penning songs for Partridge Family pin-up David Cassidy, and the rest of the decade struggling to establish a solo career. As an illustration of that struggle, in 1979 she released a single entitled “She Dances With Meat” under the pseudonym Connie Con Carne.

She dances . . . with meat.

Clearly, things were not going well.

Kim CarnesIn 1981, Carnes hooked up with a new producer and started looking at material for her upcoming album. One of the songs submitted was the demo for “Bette Davis Eyes.” It was not a new song, and its co-writer, Jackie “What The World Needs Now Is Love” DeShannon, had released her own version back in 1975.

Three things distinguish the remake from the original. First of all, the raspy vocal and Dylanesque delivery of Carnes immediately stands out, bringing a toughness and sexiness to the lyric — ingenues should never be allowed to sing this song. Secondly, the sparse production and spacious mix gives the song both immediacy and mystery. Finally, and most importantly, the—at the time—very modern-sounding synthesizer arpeggio and electronic handclaps, both of which would become staples of the 80s sound, provide the massive hooks and mainstream appeal. (Fun fact: the song was recorded live, in one take. The are no overdubs — not unusual for a rock band, but very unusual for an 80s pop song.)

Sometimes lyrics and melody alone, standing naked, are enough to propel a song to the top. But sometimes it needs an outfit — maybe a sparkly, black cocktail dress, or blue denim overalls, or Hammer pants. And sometimes you need to toss that polyester leisure suit and replace it with shoulder pads and stilettos. That’s how you get one of the biggest songs of the 80s . . .

Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes

. . . from a forgotten song of the 70s.

Jackie DeShannon – Bette Davis Eyes

5 thoughts on “Song Of The Week: “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes

    • Actually, it’s funny you should mention that since the third sentence of her Wikipedia entry notes that some people have called her “The Female Rod Stewart.” There’s definitely a similarity!

  1. Usually, learning that a song I love is a cover makes me want to flip a table, especially when the cover is as far back as the 80s. Strangely enough, this stems from my frustrations with more recent cases. Namely, Universal’s Clubland compilation series and its related label, All Around The World, both of which have nosedived into endless purgatory of dull, devoid-of-effort covers in the past ten years.

    That said, in this case, I much prefer Carnes’ version. ._.

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